Monday, October 12, 2015

"Discussing European Democracy in Barcelona - 15th October 2015, 19.00"

That beacon of wisdom, former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis will be at Barcelona’s Born Cultural Centre, in conversation with Monica Terribas (by invitation of Mayor Ada Colau.)

Live streaming here.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"Male suicide on rise as result of austerity"

"Young males between the ages of 10 and 24 have committed suicide in growing numbers as a direct result of austerity measures brought in across Europe following the 2009 recession."

Read more from ScienceDaily source here.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

"Refugees in a strange land" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

Now even the Daily Mail's editors have finally accepted that British Prime Minister David Cameron's "swarms" of refugees need to be helped. 

The next question has become one of where Europe's newest asylum seekers and victims of war will be settled.

Conservative governments (including Spain's) have agreed to take a 'fair share' of refugees but this language is vague - exactly as they want it to be. 

In fact, Spain is taking less than half the EU request. The truth is that ninety five percent of Syrian refugees are in just five main host countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, which Amnesty International says are "struggling to cope."

Even just this kind of discussion about numbers of people to a certain extent makes the crisis more remote from reality. Public debate on this issue has been marked by language that is not only intentionally vague. 

Much of it uses terms that suck out the humanity of the desperate lives of many people who are living through hours and days that most of us can barely imagine. 

Cold, clinical terms like 'dislocation' and 'displacement' are used along with the insulting tag of 'boat people' - popular in Australia for a long time.

A country like Australia was built from migrants and plenty of them were refugees. Israel was also built by migrants and Britain is still being built by people from across the globe. European countries (and just as importantly Asian countries) will have to embrace migrants as an important part of their future. 

Apart from the clear humanitarian reasons, it is actually in the interests of ageing populaces in these parts of the world to take in and welcome the kind of younger, fit men, women and children who have been able to survive long sea journeys, for example.

More importantly, I care about the lives that wait for Europe’s latest arrivals. It is heartening to see Germans welcoming some of them at train stations. That is a much better alternative than attacking refugees in the camps where they were put, as German neo-Nazi’s recently did. 

But while we are considering what is good for different societies across Europe it is vital to think about the refugees themselves. 

Many will not be able to speak the language of their new locations. Many will feel alienated by the surroundings, wishing they could still be at home, despite the individual and collective tragedies unfolding there. It’s probable that the violence in their homelands has meant they have lost loved ones: survivor guilt can be a result.

But to feel that you are accepted as an equal - even in a land where you may not really want to live - that may be a source of solace and consolation. 

After your world has been turned upside down it is the least that anyone deserves.

[A version of this article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, October 2015.]

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Paying now...or not all

Temporarily ignoring today's election in Catalonia - obviously an extremely important event - I found this little gem of an editorial on a completely different subject:

"The somewhat quixotic idea of an extra payment for the workers, the paga extraordinarianow extended to two payments in June and December – began as a Christmas bonus (known as un aguinaldo) of a week’s wage to workers, ordered by Franco’s Government in the winter of 1944. The edict was extended the following year and declared to be permanent. Two years later, in 1947, a similar payment was ordered to celebrate what would now be May Day, but was then the 18th of July (the date of the 1936 Coup d’état). Later, after Franco’s death, this second payment was moved to June. In 1980, a new agreement with the unions, never changed to this day, changed the system of the ‘fourteen payments’, which could, as agreed by the workers, be paid either as twelve regular monthly or fourteen (irregular) payments, but, from a previously accorded annual payment. In reality, the workers are no longer paid more, but by spreading the payments in this way, the tax paid by the employers is actually slightly reduced. Further, as the Government dropped the extra payments for the funcionarios in 2012 (part of which they promise to make up just after the December 2015 elections), workers are effectively having the wool pulled over their eyes. One thing which we can expect from the Troika sooner or later will be an end to this odd system originated as a workers’ bonus by Franco."

More from this very well-informed source here.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

"Land of Hope & Fury"

In honour of the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of Britain's Labour party (and in answer to my own rhetorical question in this previous blog... where I asked "Where have all the sad and angry songs gone?)

"a collection of 16 contemporary protest songs, including 10 BRAND NEW RECORDINGS, available from (with proceeds to 38 Degrees:" a progressive, people-power organisation for social change.)

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Where have all the sad and angry songs gone? - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

I heard a French song on the radio the other day. It sounded like one of those lovely ballads from around the time of the Second World War and it had a melody and lyrics that were sung with just enough melancholy to somehow have a tinge of hope to them as well. Just as with some songs in languages that are not in our native tongues, it was exotic enough to alter my mood and get me thinking of very recent English language comparisons. I couldn’t think of any.

This French song had the flavour of a kind of protest song. Not a politically militant song but you could tell that it’s world weariness came from the destruction that the singer had seen or possibly even lived through. You could almost hear the hunger for a good steak or a roast chicken in her voice. In fact, it could have been hunger for love but I got the impression from her frustrated tones that it was something more than a private, personal anguish that was eating at her. She had blame in her voice - accusation and the fire of (dare, I use the word) indignation.
“How had things got to this point?” she seemed to be demanding to know.

This is a question too for our current era . As Europe convulses with doubt about its own existence as an entity, I have my own queries about popular culture. I want to know why I don’t hear songs on mainstream radio that reflect the temper of the time. Today, who is singing about society’s ills?

According to Guardian newspaper music journalist Luke Morgan Britton, “most bands regard social commentary as career self-sabotage [and] alternative artists are increasingly silent about about activism.” While it's true, as he argues, that in the charts “there have been hits reconfiguring female sexuality, videos promoting positive body image, as well as LGBT anthems” I have heard nothing that reflects the range of social movements working against government austerity, poverty, homelessness or justice for tax-avoiders and rogue bankers.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. In the last half century alone, popular music has given us the honest power of Bob Dylan’s early career and a host of other music-industry civil rights campaigners. They must be listening to the egotistical prattle and posturing of this century’s brand name sponsored hip-hop/R&B acts - who claim to speak for the oppressed - and the older activists would have to be wondering when it all went so wrong.

In the more affluent years of the 1980’s and 1990’s social problems were represented with sharp urgency through well-known singers like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Sinéad O'Connor, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. Even bubble-gum pop duo Wham did a benefit concert for striking miners back then in the Thatcher years.

I am probably out of touch with some of the more underground sides of the cultural landscape but one of my interests is music as a source of social change - especially changing the minds of ordinary people, beyond just preaching to the converted. To do this mainstream media is necessary.

When I again hear music on the car radio that gets me questioning things I will be (for a few minutes) a happy man once more.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, Sept. 2015.]

Saturday, August 29, 2015

"The Spectre of Democracy haunts Europe"

Yanis Varoufakis in absorbing conversation with [that rare creature, an Australian public intellectual] Phillip Adams, on the former Greek finance minister's favourite radio program: Australia's ABC radio Late Night Live. 

They talk about his Frangy address/manifesto for a campaign to Democratise the Eurozone as well as the forthcoming snap Greek election.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Dinner "Withlocals" Barcelona - a review

This week I was fortunate enough to have a free dinner courtesy of Withlocals (in exchange for writing this blog post.)


In a small apartment near Barcelona's Plaça d'Espanya my wife Paula and I met a home cook who uses the name Yosuz and a Finnish friend of hers. We were immediately served glasses of homemade summer white-wine sangria and started nibbling on fried pastry triangles which we dipped into a lovely smoky, roasted baba ganoush eggplant dip.

We all soon sat down to get know each other over a wonderful home-cooked meal of salty Portuguese clams, simple "Spanish-style" mussels and a seafood and pasta stew. The food was exceptionally fresh, not at all overcooked and I greatly enjoyed the difference from Spanish food in that coriander leaves were used rather than parsley.

For dessert we tucked into another homemade delicacy - this one pistachio ice cream served with an unexpected dab of tahini paste on the side which beautifully accented the nuttiness of the dish (see picture.) Yosuz had lived for some time in Egypt (as well as in Venezuela and England) and this was also reinforced in the perfumed hibiscus tea we drank before saying our thanks and goodbyes.

If our experience was indicative of what a curious, hungry person usually finds using Withocals then I highly recommend it to anyone visiting a foreign country or even living in one. It struck me as a great way to try international food of your choice and meet new people.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

"Swarms, floods and marauders:" the language of the [European] refugee crisis

"...the ability to influence thought matters a great deal. George Orwell recognised this, inventing Newspeak to illustrate how, in one nightmare scenario, language could be used as an instrument of control.
We’re not there yet, but if we want to maintain the ability to think clearly and independently about migration, there’s good reason to be wary of some of the vocabulary now being bandied about."

Read more from David Shariatmadari's article in the Guardian online.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Saturday, August 1, 2015

"Australian gay politician gets married in Spain"

"A prominent gay Australian politician married his long-time partner in southern Spain on Wednesday, two months after his country voted down a proposal to enact same-sex marriage legislation.
Ian Hunter, the social inclusion minister for the state of South Australia, said he was disappointed that his marriage to artist Leith Semmens won't be legal in Australia, but said the two decided they couldn't wait for their country to approve a gay marriage law.
"I thought, we were coming to Spain anyway, so why not get married while we could. Spain is leading the world with its changes to its laws, and Australia is still having the debate, as is France and the UK," he said.
Mayor [of Jun in Granada province] Jose Antonio Rodriguez officiated at the ceremony attended by more than a dozen friends and relatives.
In accordance with a local tradition, the couple kissed for 17 seconds, which were counted out loud by the guests.
Hunter is believed to be the first sitting member of an Australian legislative body to marry a gay partner.
The former scientist has long been a vocal advocate for gay rights, and a lawmaker in the ruling Labour Party in the South Australian state legislature since 2006.
He became a state Cabinet minister last year.The party's annual national conference in December 2011 reversed its opposition to gay marriage, but Prime Minister Julia Gillard remains opposed. Legislation which would have recognised same-sex marriages was defeated in the House of Representatives in September in a 98-48 vote.
While Gillard allows Labour lawmakers to vote however they choose on gay marriage legislation, opposition leader Tony Abbott, a staunch Roman Catholic, insisted lawmakers in his conservative Liberal Party reject it.
Opinion polls consistently show that most Australians support same-sex marriage.

Spain enacted its gay marriage law in 2005."

More at AP source here.

Monday, July 27, 2015

"More Europeans Migrate to Latin America Than Vice Versa, Study Finds"

[“Leaving” Mural, by Antonio Segui, at Independencia station in the Buenos Aires metro, Argentina.
Photo: Rodrigo Borges Delfim]

"Contrary to popular belief, more Europeans are currently migrating from Europe to Latin America and the Caribbean than in the opposite direction. 

This is the conclusion reached in a study published recently by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), titled ‘Migratory Dynamics in Latin American and the Caribbean and between Latin America and the European Union’.

The document shows that more than 181,000 Europeans left their countries in 2012, in comparison with the 119,000 Latin Americans moving in the opposite direction. The data show a reduction of 68% in the latter flow compared to 2007, when the number of migrants moving from Latin America and the Caribbean to Europe stood at over 350,000 people, its highest level ever.

Spain is at the top of the list of countries with the highest number of citizens emigrating in search of new opportunities in Latin American states, with 181,166 emigrants to Latin America in 2012. It is followed by Italy, Portugal, France and Germany."

Read more at: Global Voices source.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

"How Spain’s Chinese immigrants went from dishwashers to doctors"

[Dídac Lee in Madrid on June 25. / LUIS SEVILLANO, El Pais.]
Fascinating stories of modern Chinese-Catalans and Chinese-Spaniards: proof that Iberia is slowly becoming more multi-cultural, and maybe at a faster rate than people here think.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

"Left-wing intellectuals of Europe: take on the challenge" says José "Pepe" Mujica

The most recent former President of Uruguay has published an article arguing that "European intellectuals must take the responsibility to change their social model before it turns into a catastrophe.

The trade union movement, the ideas of socialism, anarchism and communism, and all of the ideas of progress: all have their roots in Europe. It is in your continent that the first great popular movements – the main drivers of social change – emerged."

Read more here.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

"Hard to believe" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

 "Remember, little children are not too little to go hell.”

These are some of the words that are included in a new picture book published by a Puritan organisation in the United States last month. 

The book, whose title I choose not to state so that it is not given any further free publicity, is targeted at five to nine year olds and uses quotes and interpretation of lines from the bible to outline the usual nonsense about hell being a place of eternal fire where supposed sinners are “locked in [solitary] cages.”

In a note to parents at the back of the book, the author says: 

Some parents may be thinking that this kind of exhortation to children will give little ones horrible nightmares… It would be better for them to have nightmares now while you teach them about the realities of hell… than to wind up in the reality of the nightmare that is hell.”

Ignoring the obvious absurdity of such a place existing after death, writers such as Christopher Hitchens have questioned whether any good at all can come from terrifying children in this way. 

Others, such as Greta Christina have called it “child abuse.” 

Author Dan Arel has suggested “using a more Socratic method” of questioning children about what they already think as a better method of then exploring ideas about what happens to us when we eventually die.

Meanwhile in separate case of backwardness, a senior Vatican official has denounced the same-sex marriage referendum result in Ireland as a “defeat for humanity” after the country overwhelmingly voted to support it. 

On the same day as the Irish vote, reports emerged that Taiwanese pop songstress Jolin Tsai's song and her music video “We're All Different, Yet The Same” had been banned from broadcast in Singapore. The video shows two women in a marriage ceremony kissing (with closed mouths) for about seven seconds.

Also recently, two judges in Argentina are still somehow sitting at the head of their courts, after saying that the rape of a six year old boy wasn’t too serious because he was “already gay”. They reduced the rapist's sentence, saying the boy was used to being abused and had “homosexual tendencies”.

In Australia (that far off country that I used to call home) their ultra-conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott blocked both legislation and the possibility of a referendum on gay marriage.

In more encouraging news though, back on this side of the planet, Greenland’s Parliament has unanimously approved same-sex marriage and adoption. 

MPs in the country, which has a population of 57,000, voted to adopt Danish laws on the issue, scrapping Greenland’s domestic partnership legislation, adopted from Denmark in 1996. 

Also, a lesbian fleeing persecution (because of her sexuality) in her native Cameroon has now received asylum in Spain after a long legal battle.

Progress moves slowly - in fits and starts through the world - a world that calls itself modern.

I wish all readers a very enjoyable summer.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, July 2015.]

Saturday, June 27, 2015

"Sixto, Sitges and Camp Nou" - (An excerpt from my next book)

A friend of mine named Raúl Blanco has a father who originally came from Cordoba.

He told me that when his father (called Sixto, probably after one of the Popes) was seventeen he decided to try his luck finding work in Barcelona. 

Like a lot of the Spaniards at that time he was regularly living on little food - the 1940s and ‘50s were often called ‘the years of hunger’ - and he was prepared to risk what was then an illegal train trip due to the tight restrictions on travelling away from your home town.

Sixto was told by his friends to stand in the open space between the two carriages of the train and  when it started to slow down before Barcelona, around Sitges on the Garraf coast he should then jump off onto the ground. He was warned to only do this when he heard the announcement for the stop at Sitges

But Sixto did not hear the pronunciation of the town with a hard ‘g’ sound that he was accustomed to. Instead the soft “ch” of ‘Seetchas’ in the Catalan accent was used and when he soon arrived in Barcelona and got off the train that was supposed to take him to a bright new future he was arrested on the platform, thrown into jail for nine days then sent back to Cordoba.

Sixto was not deterred for long though. The next time he made sure that through his family he had arranged a work contract with former neighbours who had agreed to  officially sponsor him and his employment.

One of his first jobs was being a labourer on the Camp Nou, a new stadium for the city's beloved Barça football team. Like many of his so-called ‘immigrants’ he lived in the working class area of Hospitalet de Llobregat where with his wife (from the northern Burgos region) he went on to run a bar-restaurant.

Sixto’s story is emblematic and typical of his generation of rural families, especially those from Andalusia, a region where the Socialist party has governed without losing office since 1982. His hometown of Cordoba was actually the first provincial capital to elect a Communist mayor.

In King Solomon’s time Andalucia was called ‘Tarshish’ in Hebrew and was considered to be the legendary place of riches at the end of the world. If Sixto had known about this before he stepped onto the train he might have thought of it as a cruel joke.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

"If Greece falls..."

[Special meeting of the European Council on 23 April 2015. From left to right: Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament; Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of Greece; Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission. Photo: European Council. Source: Flickr]

"As the Greek crisis continues, Steffen Vogel reports that a majority of German business leaders look upon a Grexit as a favourable option, according to a survey published last month in the German business daily Handelsblatt.

At the same time, Vogel draws attention to the political price of a Grexit, summed up best he says in the words of Reuters European affairs editor Paul Taylor: "If Greece falls, no one wants their prints on the murder weapon".

"That applies to the German government too", Vogel continues, "long held up on the international stage as an example of a party that is blocking a lasting solution to the crisis.

Some weeks ago, The Economist mocked Wolfgang Schäuble as an 'ayatollah of austerity', thus reversing the rationale upon which Berlin claims to be acting pragmatically." "

[Source: Eurozine.]


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

'COLOUR' in Barcelona

The photographic work of my friend Ibrahim Sajid is part of a new exhibition (until June 21) at Arenas, the former bullring at Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, 373- on Plaça d'Espanya, Barcelona.

The concept of this international group project is stated as:

"Mankind has come a long way, yet even in today’s modern world, our behaviours are stereotypical.
Racism, bias and discrimination are the social evils prevalent in all societies and each and every one of us plays a role in either contributing to or breaking down racial prejudice and intolerant attitudes.
Our opinions are created and nurtured by superficial beliefs, making us form biases against ethnicities, cultures, religions, gender, nationalities, races and color without even trying to see beyond.
This installation urges us, as a society, to question the first impressions we form at a glance, regardless of his or her appearance, forcing us to look beyond the colour."

Thursday, June 4, 2015

"TTIPing us over the edge" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

While we are all going about our daily business this month, big business is going about trying to make sure that Europe is run purely in its interest.

If agreed to by the European parliament, the new Free Trade Agreement between the United States and the European Union, better known as TTIP, will do immeasurable damage to the lives of citizens across this continent. 

The progressive organisation Global Justice believes that it poses "great risks to hard won measures to protect public health, worker rights and the environment."

Essentially, TTIP is "designed to take away barriers which are behind the customs border – such as differences in regulations, standards and certifications" of goods for trade. 

This may sound reasonable but what it means is that Europe would be required by law to have exactly the same product rules as the United States, which are widely known to be the loosest and most anti-consumer protection in the developed world.

The TTIP negotiations have all been conducted in secret sessions - closed to the public and the media. 

The reason for this is simple. 

The leaks of information from the meetings have shown that TTIP would mean that any business could take any government to court if they believed that a government policy threatens their profits. 

This legal method, (known as the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism) has already led to countries being sued for putting health warnings on cigarette packets, regulating medicine and energy prices, raising minimum wages, and removing tax incentives.

TTIP would further strengthen the power of big business (because only the largest can afford it) to control what national parliaments can and cannot do for their private citizens. 

Fracking, to take just one other example, would be more likely to go ahead because public administrators would want to avoid costly litigation that they are likely to lose defending a decision against it.

On top of all this, there is a fear – from the European Commission itself – that because of TTIP changes up to one million workers employed in small businesses are almost certain to lose their jobs. 

So, if accepted, TTIP may well worsen inequality across the EU.

Meanwhile, according to online global web campaigners Avaaz, “cruel factory farms are pumping healthy animals full of antibiotics so that they can produce more meat, faster and cheaper.” 

They argue that this practise is also creating drug-resistant superbugs but, in a positive development, several European countries have already drastically cut the use of antibiotics, and now EU ministers are negotiating laws to do so across the wider region. 

Unsurprisingly, and in a parallel move with pressure on TTIP, “the farm and pharma lobby is out in full force to stop the new EU laws.”

I would urge readers to think about taking action by signing the online petitions (as I have done) at the websites of the two organizations I’ve mentioned above in this article: Global Justice and Avaaz.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, June 2015.]